Petersburg, Andrei Bely – 1916

Petersburg is an astonishing composition that blends much of what many love about 19th century Russian Lit with a daunting symbolist aesthetic that practically swallows its strands of plot into a prenatal existence. Sure, there is a narrative – a bomb, politics, parricide – but the crux of Petersburg is the dazzling imagery and false signifiers that Bely relentlessly cascades from every page.

The novel is nearly as concerned with shapes as it is with humans. Cubes, pyramids and, yes, even parallelepipeds are given the same (and on occasions more) notice than the men and women who stroll about them. The result is a dizzying and at times hallucinatory painting of a city and  a world where symbolic sensation does not correspond to the stimulus.  Everything is caught in an integument of shapes and sensations with nowhere to expand. Nowhere is this captured better than in the case of Alexandr Ivanovich.

His ephemeral descent into delirium is perhaps the most perfectly realized account of madness I have read in any Russian novel (and if we’re talking madness here, Russian authors hold the throne imo). I would try to describe the end of chapter six, but my words would be impotent. I will simply sum it up with the word “enfranshish” and remark that it involves a giant bronze horse come to life and a host of other things that make for some breathtaking reading along the lines of Gogol although, and its hard for me to say, likely better.

There is plenty more to talk about here – language, narration, bodily deatchment, repetition – but I would simply like to say that this is a book worth reading. Well worth reading. It’s astonishing.


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